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Midlands Voices: Omaha exhibit is part of effort to boost mental health understanding

Midlands Voices: Omaha exhibit is part of effort to boost mental health understanding

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Szto is professor of social work at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Piwko is co-developer of the National Museum of Mental Health Project and teaches at Assumption College in Massachusetts, where he researches exhibits about mental health. The views expressed in this essay are those of the authors and not necessarily shared by their educational institutions.

Joy. Gifts. Salvation Army bells. Family laughs. These are the moods of the season. But so are these: Sadness. Loneliness. Angst. Mania. Our symptoms of mental illness are easy to look past in the hustle-and-bustle of the holidays. And stigma, too, can block understanding and celebrating.

Mental illness is real. According to the World Health Organization, one in five persons annually experience a serious mental health issue. On a global scale, that’s 1.4 billion, equal to the whole population of China. In Omaha, 93,652 persons would be affected. For Iowa, 634,000 individuals. This means neighbors, co-workers, family, friends and perhaps us too.

The good news is that answers are available to treat, manage and better handle mental distress. The sad news is that stigma is a barrier to good care and social supports.

In Omaha through May 2020, a new exhibit — "Coming Into" at the Kaneko-UNO Criss Library gallery — provides a chance for the holiday spirit of charity to blossom into new understanding. Visitors can experience photographs from China’s oldest psychiatric hospital and persons receiving services from the ACT team, an intensive outreach program of Heartland Family Service in Council Bluffs. The exhibit challenges viewers’ stigma toward persons with a severe and persistent mental illness with real images of people who live with the condition everyday, all day.

The images are part of a breakthrough phenomenon, used in a growing number of exhibits nationwide, aiming to to transform society’s understanding and attitudes toward mental health.

Such exhibits aim for deep learning. The goal is not to fill visitors with information, explains Christine Reich of the Museum of Science, Boston. Instead, the goal is to change “affect and feeling” — helping those who experience mental illness to feel a sense of belonging and helping others develop empathy. The exhibits demonstrate that emotions and experience create understanding. Real understanding.

Exhibits about mental health are a nascent phenomenon, and "Coming Into" is among the latest example of such exhibits in the United States. The most visited exhibit, "Deconstructing Stigma," resides at Logan Airport in Boston. It features beautiful, color, floor-to-ceiling photographs of 30 people — at work, at home or at play — who experience mental illness and have found resilience. Real illness. Real recovery.

The exhibition trend has emanated from the Midwest and the Northeast. The largest exhibition is "Mental Health: Mind Matters," which was developed by the Science Museum of Minnesota and displayed at the Science Center of Iowa in 2019. "Mind Matters" greets viewers with a wall of digital photographs of real people with mental illness. Consistent with the demographic reality of mental illness, the wall looks like America. Various photos alight for a few seconds into short videos of individuals introducing themselves and sharing that they have a mental illness.

The graceful courage of real people with mental illness putting their faces on public display is historic. At a basic level, the value of these exhibits is their physicality. Creativity has transformed the emotional and unspoken into an environment where the unseen can be seen.

The facts about mental health in the United States are widely known. Seventy percent of youth in juvenile justice systems live with at least one mental illness, and so do 26% of homeless adults in shelters. Estimates indicate that the United States loses nearly $105 billion in productivity and $200 billion in earnings annually due to mental illness. Yet, numbers alone do not create understanding about mental health, as opposed to seeing it yourself.

Given the inadequacy of traditional funding in mental health care, developing mental health literacy through the type of social entrepreneurship in these exhibits yields the possibility that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Real people. Real illness. Real understanding. A possibility now exists to utilize a constellation of exhibits like "Mind Matters" to revolutionize understanding, prevention and wellness nationally, all while unlocking economic benefits and advancing human dignity.

Real progress, a real holiday season.

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